Thursday, March 31, 2011

Well, at least the money isn't going to the poor.

Corporate tax rate of negative 60 percent proof corporate taxes too high.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Happy Birthday to Richard Dawkins, Part II

Jerry Coyne has asked his readers not just to wish Dawkins a happy birthday, but to explain how he has influenced them. I think that's a very good idea.

One of my most vivid memories from my first year as an undergraduate at UC Irvine involves sitting for hours on a bench, in a part of the student center that no longer exists, absolutely riveted by replicators and hawks and doves and evolutionary stable strategies. I was, of course, reading The Selfish Gene. Dawkins taught me that evolutionary biology was orders of magnitude richer and more fascinating than I had ever before imagined—and I was a biology major at the time! His penetrating analyses and his gift for language helped urge me along from a premedical focus to the more natural, theoretical focus that culminated with my switching full-time into philosophy of science. Dawkins was not, by any means, the principal catalyst in this change, but everyone who helped kindle my burning fascination with the deepest questions about the way the world works contributed, and Dawkins definitely ranks among them.

Beyond that, what can one say, but what Dawkins already knows—that he is the most talented communicator of science since Carl Sagan, that his public defense of atheism brings solace to many who were formerly voiceless, that he is truly a great man, far more worthy of attention than the silly celebrities and brutal conquerors upon which everyone bestows their plaudits?

Happy Birthday again, Dr. Dawkins, and many, many more.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Materialism and meaning

One of my friends and I have been talking about the comfort religion is thought to bring, compared to a materialistic metaphysics, if one thirsts for meaning and solace. A materialistic universe can be a scary place: in such a world, the universe does not care about you or about anything else. In such a world, it is possible for random events to screw up your life completely and irredeemably, or for you to do so yourself. Decay and death are all but certain; unless you and those you love have the good fortune all to die together in the same instant, you face the torturous prospect either of your having to watch them deteriorate into nothingness, or of their having to watch this happen to you. Although life in such a world can—if one is fortunate, and has the right attitude—contain much happiness, such a world is not the kind of world anyone should be happy about.

Now, here come the preachers, telling you that the world is not like this, that you actually have a chance at a blissful eternity. The only price that comes with this world is that some people will end up in infinite torture for all eternity. This is a trade that selfish billions are all too happy to make; they even happily grab the preacher's ludicrous rationalization that people "choose" Hell, or "send themselves" to Hell. I say, however, that such a world is not just worse than the materialistic one, but infinitely worse. A world in which even one being must suffer for all eternity is an infinitely bad world; even a world in which the only beings who go to Hell are those people (and gods) who would send others to Hell, is infinitely bad—such people (and gods) simply should be shot, not inflicted with the same torture they would visit upon others.

The materialistic universe is a bad universe—it is a dangerous universe in which we must, with no assurance of success, scrounge for enough temporary happiness to make our brief lives worthwhile—but it is not nearly the worst of all universes. In the end, that is something to be extremely thankful for.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Poison King

I give my enthusiastic recommendation for Adrienne Mayor's extraordinarily written biography of Mithradates, The Poison King. Everything about the book is just right.

At the same time, I have to say that I feel unsettled by my own reaction to reading about great conquerers like Mithradates. It is so easy, looking back, to feel admiration for them; yet, whatever nobility they might at times possess, they invariably are soaked in innocent blood. Mithradates himself, early in his rise to power, orchestrated the murder of nearly one hundred thousand Roman citizens in Asia Minor—some of them surely deserving the death owed to oppressors, as many surely not. Reading such things, and still finding oneself romanticizing such men, one wonders whether, two thousand years hence, people will view Hitler in the same way.

It often is a challenge to feel connected to suffering that is spatially distant from us; notwithstanding my donations to help Japan, it is not as though I am running off there to help with the reconstruction, much less impoverishing myself to help people even worse off elsewhere in the world. Yet, suffering that is temporally distant is even more remote; once we get into the ancient chronicles, where faceless thousands seem to die at the drop of a hat, even remote recognition of the sheer magnitude of the human suffering in question is next to impossible.

Climate Cover-Up

I have been wanting to read James Hoggan's Climate Cover-Up for a long time, and now, thanks to Interlibrary Loan, I have been able to. It is very similar to the outstanding Merchants of Doubt, which I have noted on this blog, though perhaps more readable on the run.

If you want to see how politics and corporate interest have conspired to manufacture a pseudo-debate about climate science, either book will do the trick. Both books are very upsetting. They highlight, again and again, how corruption and dishonesty are rewarded, rather than punished—how there is no justice, no accountability, and, in the end, no hope.

You want the world to be a better place? Then make sure you have more cash to throw around than the other guy. That's all there is to it. Stop hoping for some Batman to set things straight; even Batman wouldn't be capable of much without his millions of dollars.